Staggering stats behind Jona Nareki’s Highlanders heroics

Jona Nareki completing his hat-trick of tries as the Highlanders stunned the Chiefs in Hamilton. BRUCE LIM/PHOTOSPORT

Highlanders coach Tony Brown said Jona Nareki’s sparkling performance against the Chiefs was just another day at the office for the dazzling Fijian winger.

Brown was being modest because Nareki’s staggering numbers on Friday night tell a different a story.

The Highlanders stormed back with 26 unanswered points, after the Chiefs flew out of the blocks, and won 39-23 at FMG Stadium Waikato for their first victory in the second edition of Super Rugby Aotearoa.

Nareki’s brilliant hat-trick of tries either side of half-time was the catalyst for his side’s third successive win over the Chiefs in Hamilton.

The 23-year-old, a candidate for New Zealand’s sevens squad chasing an Olympic gold medal in Tokyo in July, also beat nine defenders, made four clean breaks, and laid on the assist for Shannon Frizell’s try with one of his devastating runs and a magical offload.

Still, it’s a remarkable figure and at least par with a rugby league fullback’s running metres per game when they’re afforded far more time and space to run the ball from kick returns.

“He performs like that every week,” Brown said in Friday’s post-match press conference.

“He’s an outstanding winger. There’s not many small wingers in New Zealand that perform like him.

“An exceptional night tonight obviously, but for me, he performs like that every week. He’s unreal.”

First, the Fijian-born Otago flyer intercepted an unconvincing Bryn Gatland kick in the first half to run more than 80 metres for his first try, a vital moment because the Highlanders were under immense pressure on their line and the Chiefs, leading 20-6, were closing in for their third try.

The ball bounced kindly and Nareki pounced. He scored despite Chiefs winger Jonah Lowe breathing down his neck.

Brown said it wasn’t the decisive turning point, but it was still significant because the Highlanders, who spent half of the opening 40 minutes with 14 men because of yellow cards for Sio Tomkinson and co-captain Ash Dixon, were struggling to survive against a first-half onslaught from the Chiefs.

The Highlanders coach, who was disappointed with the penalty count in last Friday’s 26-13 defeat to the Crusaders in Dunedin, was content with both yellow cards.

“That first half was pretty disappointing for us,” Brown added. “The Chiefs started the game really strongly and had us under all sorts of pressure. Our discipline failed us in the first half because of that pressure.

“I’m proud of our boys, the leaders did a massive job in turning our team around, going out in that second half and showing what sort of footy we can play.

“The Chiefs played really well in that first 20 minutes, we couldn’t get back onside, the referees were good, we’ve just got to be better.”

The Highlanders scored four second-half tries to secure a bonus-point win and Nareki completed his hat-trick with two fabulous finishes in either corner.

Nareki was the star of the show but another prospect, halfback Folau Fakatava, who started ahead of All Black Aaron Smith, also demonstrated why he’s in high demand with his future undecided.

His 50th minute try got the Highlanders rolling after half-time.

“I thought Folau was awesome, especially on defence,” Brown said.

“He was under a lot of pressure from the Chiefs, he was making a lot of tackles, and lost some turnover penalties.

“But you saw with his individual try in and around the ruck, he’s pretty lethal when he sees a hole [in the defence].”

Meanwhile, the Highlanders are waiting to learn if prop Dan Lienert-Brown’s arm injury is serious. He went for an X-ray on Friday night.


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